On the whole, I do not retain sharp memories of being nine years old. One recollection, however, remains clear. Our family had moved from one midwestern state to another. It was a pretty bleak November. At age nine, such a change was a lot easier than it would have been five years later. Still, uneasiness was the order of the day.
But not for long. Within a day or two of arrival, friendly faces appeared—kids about my age from across the street—first Gary Pugh, then Dennis and Bruce Leclere, soon Tom and Ron Russell. I’d say now that these friends became my lore-masters, introducing me to the mores of Twentieth Street and providing orientation to a new environment. Then it was simply finding guys who liked to play football, knew the best hills for sledding, and could be counted on to be there after school.
Years later, now married and supposedly more wise to the world, a similar felicity occurred. My wife and I, inveterate northerners, found ourselves in Tennessee. It was not, to be sure, the other end of the earth, but from the perspective of northeast Iowa or suburban New York, it was a long ways from home. Moving in, starting school, finding work—all involved significant amounts of stress.
So, too, might have been the effort to break into a new church. But after our very first service at the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Don and Nancy Wilkes introduced themselves and insisted that we go out to eat. As natives, the Wilkeses provided a friendly introduction to our new and intimidating world that meant much more than they could have known.
Once or twice since then our family has found itself in new places where the equivalent of neighborhood chums or gracious local hosts did not appear. The difference was considerable.
Orientation to new venues can be conceptual as well as personal. Just at the time in my life when the study of church history began to quicken, I discovered two special books, Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther and A. G. Dickens’s history of the English Reformation. The academic skill and human sympathy of these books made them immediate friends in the exploration of the past, which is its own kind of foreign country. Twenty years later, the books have all but fallen to pieces, a mark of how sturdy the friendship became.
Thoughts about new friends in new places have been stimulated recently by an effort to find out about a very big, new place—even though I haven’t moved there. It has seemed increasingly clear that some knowledge of the Dominion of Canada could be a most illuminating complement to my work as a historian of Christianity. Just as it is intimidating for a nine-year old to move to a new neighborhood, so it is intimidating for a historian to take on a whole new region of the world.
But this venture has become more of a delight than a trauma, in large part because of the many new friends who have been there to show the way. Fellow academics from Kingston, Ontario, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and several points in-between, have provided visits, personal encouragement, and the special arcana of scholarship.
In trying to take the measure of church life in Canada, it has also been a signal blessing to discover a user-friendly guide. Christian Week, which appears about 25 times a year from Winnipeg, is all that I could have wished. Its editors, Harold Jantz and Doug Koop, come from the Mennonite Brethren, but they cover Canadian religious news and related topics in the best ecumenical spirit. The paper’s regular columnists, especially John H. Redekop, who was recently elected president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, provide not just useful information, but challenging analysis as well. Conceptually considered, I could not have found a better new friend for getting a feel for this new place.
New friends in new places are a gift from God. Without straining the connection too far, they may also be an echo of what it was like when the Lord himself walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day.
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